We want to make you normal for your own good: conversion therapies performed on intersex persons

Conversion or reparative therapy is the harmful emotional and physical practice of trying to “cure” or “repair” a person’s gender expression, gender identity, or sexual orientation. Some of these conversion practices include forced marriages, brutal beatings, the recital of verses and prayers for long hours, seclusion, rape, the administration of hormone-suppressing drugs, and performing unnecessary medical procedures on intersex children. In Kenya, the belief in the success of conversion therapy is deeply ingrained and troubling. The practice is supported by groups with a lot of influence in society, including, religious organizations, traditional healers, and even medical practitioners.

Preachers, pastors and other religious leaders argue that not adhering to gendered societal standards goes against religious teachings. Families will therefore call on these religious organizations to “pray the devil away” or “cast out the evil spirit” from individuals and save them from the burning fires of hell. Medical practitioners also play a significant role in conversion therapy. They propose that intersex persons have a pathological disorder that can be cured through science. Electrocution and hormone therapy are common methods used to “cure the disorder.”

Not only are these treatments unnecessary, but they also have significant physical and psychological effects on the individual. None of the treatments offered either by religious organizations or medical practitioners have any effect on changing the identity of intersex persons. The only thing that these organizations do is cheat and get huge profits from desperate family members who are mistaken about their kin.

Gender is such an emotive issue in Kenyan homes such that families opt to resort to great lengths to “help” their own. They resort to extreme acts of conversion therapies like; hormone treatments, surgeries, electroconvulsive shock treatments, ‘corrective’ rape and sexual assault, imprisonment and kidnapping, physical abuse, purification rituals, cultural treatments, aversion therapy and non-physical therapies like psychotherapy, peer support and pastoral counselling just so that their intersex relatives can be deemed ‘normal’.

Across the world, conversion therapy has been severely discouraged. It has been proven to be a falsehood, used by dishonest people to make a profit. Subjecting any person to any conversion practice is inherently degrading and discriminatory. Being an intersex person is not a disease. Conversion therapy does not therefore seek to cure anything, but rather to shame an individual into behaving as society would expect. Its effects are immense and have been shown to lead to depression, anxiety, drug use, homelessness, and even suicide.

Conversion practices are a reality in Kenya that should be addressed and dealt with severely. It is a shame that the government ignores such harmful practices and allows them to continue. Such practices should be expressly criminalized and attract severe punishments.

Awareness ought to be raised against the dangers associated with conversion therapy by publicly and proactively stating that the practices are not scientifically proven and unnecessary. The public should be educated on the challenges that intersex persons face and ways that they can support them, rather than shun them. It is important to understand that, at the end of the day, they are human beings entitled to human rights without discrimination. Subjecting them to damaging conversion practices would only harm their physical, mental, and social well-being and have a permanent impact on them. Medical institutions should also provide psychological and medical support to the victims of conversion practices.

Maria Nambuya
JKUAT Legal Clinic